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Traditionally, connecting with referral sources and clients doesn’t include running races, but members of the BKR International running group did just that, recently participating in races in Italy as well as a 10K fun run during the association’s annual Worldwide Conference in Paris.

Clubs like this are among the newest ways that accounting firms can engage with clients or referral sources outside the traditional venues of cocktail hours or power lunches. Even the golf course is losing its traditional appeal (although still a contender) in favor of more diverse and less time-consuming methods of building relationships.

Here are a few unusual relationship builders any firm can try in the coming year to engage clients, referrals, even staff!

1. Get active.

Fitness is almost a requirement these days with longer life expectancies and the desire to avoid high health care costs. Your clients and referral sources will appreciate options like a walking meeting or an event that encourages movement. Inviting your client to a special exhibition at your local museum or an “off the beaten track” walking tour of your city, for example, encourages conversation beyond business that allows people to bond.

“[Our BKR running group] has really been a great common ground for us to share and build stronger relationships,” said Lien Le, shareholder at Briggs & Veselka in Houston. “Some of us have already discussed scheduling a running event at next year’s BKR Annual Worldwide Meeting in Santiago, Chile.”

Other ideas: invite your clients or referrals to be guests at your gym or to try out a sport like archery by scheduling a vendor demonstration.

2. Personalize it.

Knowledge of clients’ interests and hobbies has always been an important piece of building relationships. Take that knowledge a step further by personalizing gifts, taking dietary needs into account when hosting a dinner, or anticipating their next business or personal need.  All you need to do is look around their office or cubicle and you will find a wealth of information about their hobbies and special interests. 

For example, if you know that a client or referral is looking at a heavy workload for the next six to nine months, think about services that would support their ability to provide strong client service or to hire new employees at just the right time. On the personal side, send a gift card for a spa service after the client meets an important business deadline or goal.

3. Move out of your comfort zone.

Punch up the excitement in client relationships by engaging in activities that have time limits or will challenge you physically or mentally. It doesn’t have to involve public speaking, either!

Activities could include a team relay competition, a trip to an amusement park to try out the newest coaster, or an indoor game of skill like Jenga. To increase the adrenalin, place a time limit on the activity or require a minimum number of completed tasks.

4. Make it progressive.

Rather than offering just one activity, encourage a series of activities in which one builds upon the other. Host a progressive dinner that includes several restaurants. Take a wine or brew pub tour. Organize a scavenger hunt that guides participants through a building or outdoor venue. Choose a location that is brand new or has been recently updated; you will increase interest if the opportunity feels novel or exclusive.

More intellectual types may enjoy a monthly book club or movie night, in which participants discuss and debrief on the work over dessert or appetizers. This type of activity encourages regular contact through the year as well as sharing a mutual interest. 

5. Build goodwill.

Many accounting firms participate in some form of fundraising or volunteer activities to build goodwill. These activities can certainly extend to clients and referrals, especially if those clients or referrals operate not-for-profits or have their own pet causes.

Think beyond traditional toy collections during the holidays or team outings to feed the hungry. Some firms have created foundations or scholarship funds to support causes and future professionals. Others participate in global mission trips or serve on not-for-profit boards.

“Members of BKR International are always looking for new ways to engage relationships,” said Maureen Schwartz, executive director. “Our events include a mix of social as well as business activities because we know that real relationships are built when we share a fun or memorable experience. For some, it’s running. For others, it’s giving back to their profession. The possibilities to connect are endless.”

BKR International is one of the top 5 global accounting associations, representing the combined strength and market exclusivity of more than 160 independent accounting and business advisory firms in over 500 offices and 80 countries. To learn more, visit www.bkr.com